Road map for racial progress

One of the saddest things about the recently concluded World Conference Against Racism is that lack of attention the many forms of discrimination received.

Officially called the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, the gathering was consumed from the beginning by two issues that hardly represent the universe of topics covered by that cumbersome title.

So much time was spent debating draft language concerning Israel, and to a lesser degree, reparations for slavery and colonialism, that many of the world's sins went largely unnoticed to anyone not at the meeting's Durban, South Africa, venue.

In the end, the conference went an extra day to agree on a declaration and a program of action - no thanks to a petulant United States, which left conference discussions with four days to go. The final documents are far from perfect. But for those active in the fight for human rights, the papers contain a valuable road map that points to serious problems in the way the world's peoples treat one another and outlines actions to reduce the many forms of intolerance humans practice.

For example, the Program of Action:

• Urges states to adopt the "constitutional, administrative, legislative, judicial, and all necessary measures to promote, protect, and ensure the enjoyment" of the "human rights and fundamental freedoms" of indigenous people, such as the Aboriginals of Australia and the native Americans of Canada and the United States.

• "Encourages states to promote education on the human rights of migrants and to engage in information campaigns to ensure that the public receives accurate information regarding migrants and migration issues, including the positive contribution of migrants to the host society."

• "Urges states to take effective steps to protect refugee and internally displaced women and girls from violence, to investigate any such violations, and to bring those responsible to justice."

• "Recommends that the intergovernmental organizations address the situation of the Roma/Gypsies/Sinti/Travellers and promote their economic, social, and cultural advancement."

• Urges the United Nations to develop programs that would provide "additional investments to health systems, education, housing, electricity, drinking water, and environmental control measures," and promote equal opportunity in employment and affirmative action initiatives for people of African descent.

Beyond simply condemning discrimination against various groups, the program includes specific suggestions to combat intolerance. It calls on governments to finance "anti-racism education and media campaigns." While advising nations to guarantee freedom of expression, the action program also urges them to "encourage Internet service providers to establish and disseminate specific voluntary codes of conduct and self-regulatory measures against the dissemination of racist messages."

Among many issues agreed to without controversy were basic things like the call for the elimination of barriers to education, medical care, and social services; the inclusion of "different social groups at the planning stage of urban development schemes"; and the support of enterprises owned by people traditionally subjected to discrimination.

Though many issues were dealt with quietly and in the shadow of the Zionism and reparations debates, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, president of the conference and South Africa's foreign minister, said it was unfortunate that there was too little time to deal with all problems, such as those raised by the Dalit, or untouchable, people of India.

On the two contentious areas, the delegates arrived at difficult compromises that left no one completely happy. The contrast, however, between those who worked an extra day to reach agreement and the US and Israel, who gave up early, is one indication of who is serious about confronting global intolerance.

Conferences come and go, albeit generally with far less angst than this one. What counts is what happens next.

"The main message I would like to leave you with is that Durban must be a beginning and not an end. There must be follow-up," said Mary Robinson, United Nations high commissioner for human rights and the meeting's secretary-general.

Toward that end, the conference recommended "the establishment of a follow-up observatory composed of five eminent persons from the various regions."

Cuban President Fidel Castro got it right when he told the delegates that if the conference does not succeed, "What lies before us can only be worse than what we have left behind."

Joe Davidson does commentaries on National Public Radio's 'Morning Edition.'

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